Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
China/US, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 114 mins.
Director: Yuan Heping 袁和平.
Belated sequel is dull and uninvolving, even on an action level.
China, late Qing dynasty. The martial arts world is again in chaos, and after eight years in seclusion legendary Wudang clan swordswoman Yu Xiulian (Yang Ziqiong) travels to the capital to retrieve Green Destiny 青冥宝剑, the sword of her late love, master swordsman Li Mubai. En route she’s attacked by members of the ambitious West Lotus clan, among them the young Wei Fang (Cen Yongkang); a masked horseman helps her fight them off but then disappears. At the pagoda HQ of West Lotus leader Hades Dai (Li Jie), a young swordswoman, Snow Vase (Liu Chengyu), tries to kill Hades Dai and then escapes. On the way back, Wei Fang is approached by the Blind Enchantress (Yuan Liqi) and told to take her to Hades Dai, as she has some news for him. Arriving in the capital, Yu Xiulian visits the home of Tie, who has recently died and was like a father to her; his son (Gary Young) confirms the Green Destiny sword is in safe keeping in the house. Meanwhile, the Blind Enchantress tells Hades Dai that, if he is to rule the martial arts world, he must gain possession of the Green Destiny sword; Wei Fang can steal it for him, as the young man is connected to it by fate. While stealing it one night, Wei Fang bumps into Snow Vase, who is among the mourners staying in the house. During their fight, the house is alerted and Wei Fang, whom Snow Vase pretends to have caught, is arrested. Yu Xiulian has him held prisoner in a cage in a courtyard; but she is also suspicious of Snow Vase and questions her. When Snow Vase tries to grab the Green Destiny sword, Yu Xiulian beats her off and refuses to take her as a student when Snow Vase begs her. Yu Xiulian recommends to Tie’s son that she should be allowed to take the sword back to the Wudang Mountains for safety, but he refuses, asking her to stay longer instead. Yu Xiulian sends out an appeal to the martial arts world for volunteers to help guard the legendary sword. One who accepts is Meng Sizhao, aka Silent Wolf (Zhen Zidan), who also convinces four others to join him: Flying Blade (Wu Yugang) from Sichuan, Thunder Fist Chan (Park Weon-yong) from Shandong, Silver Dart Shi (Chen Yuyun) from Hunan, and Turtle Ma (Guan Yongyang) from Hebei. When they arrive at the Tie home, Yu Xiulian is surprised to see Meng Sizhao, whom she thought died long ago in a fight with Hades Dai. Meng Sizhao says he faked his death and disappeared, as he knew that Yu Xiulian would never love him, only Li Mubai. Yu Xiulian tries to work out why Snow Vase is so interested in Wei Fang. Meanwhile, Hades Dai, impatient to getl the sword, sends his female sidekick, Mantis (Ngô Thanh Vân), to finish the job.
After 16 years, one of the most over-rated wuxia films of all time – at least by western audiences – gets a plodding, pedestrian sequel in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny 卧虎藏龙 青冥宝剑, shot in New Zealand and in English, with an almost entirely new cast heavy on overseas Chinese and a crew that’s largely western. Despite being clearly aimed at US audiences – who helped make the 2000 original so successful – it ironically did most of its business in China, where it grossed a sturdy (but by no means mega) RMB256 million. In the US, however, it went out through Netflix, and only appeared on a handful of cinema screens, courtesy IMAX. On every level, the film is depressingly average and often worse – from its lethargic plotting to uninspired action – confirming that Hong Kong action veteran Yuan Heping 袁和平, 71, who choreographed the first film, is now way past his sell-by date.
The screenplay by the US’ John Fusco (Young Guns, 1988; Netflix drama series Marco Polo, 2014) is officially based on the so-called Crane-Iron Pentalogy by late Mainland writer Wang Dulu 王度庐 (1909-77); a more accurate description would be “inspired by characters and plot elements”. Like the first film, but even more so, Sword of Destiny bears little relation to Wang’s writings: bits of swordsman Meng Sizhao’s background story are drawn from the pentalogy’s second book (Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin 宝剑金钗, ser. 1938, pub. 1939) and Snow Vase and Wei Fang’s backstory is drawn from the fifth book (Iron Knight, Silver Vase 铁骑银屏, ser. 1942, pub. 1948), but even many of those details have been altered. Fusco takes other liberties with the source novels. For a start, the main survivor from the first film, swordswoman Yu Xiulian (reprised by Yang Ziqiong 杨紫琼 [Michelle Yeoh]), is shown to have outlasted the love of her life, Li Mubai, who died at the end of the original film. In the novels, however, Li Mubai outlives her, and both of them were way younger.
So, Sword of Destiny is basically an original work. But Fusco’s plot is lame stuff, reminiscent of an average 1970s chop-socky movie, without even the limited complexity of the first film: Yu Xiulian comes out of seclusion to reclaim Li Mubai’s sword but finds various other people, especially from the ambitious White Lotus clan, are also after it. A couple of backstories decorate the story – one between Yu Xiulian and an old wannabe lover, Meng Sizhao, another between young fighters Snow Vase and Wei Fang – but the first has no emotional depth and the second adds little mystery or tension, simply explained via a tinted flashback. In fact, little drama of any kind – either physical or emotional – can be found in the film. Zhen Zidan [Donnie Yen], 52, reprising the role he had in the first movie (when he was just a jobbing action actor), generates no chemistry with Yang, now 53; she, especially, looks like she’d just prefer to spend her evenings in, with a hot cup of cocoa.
As well as Yang (an English-educated Malaysian Chinese), the supporting cast is packed with overseas Chinese of all varieties, from the US (Cen Yongkang 岑勇康 [Harry Shum Jr.], Yuan Liqi 原丽淇 [Eugenia Yuan], Li Jie 李截 [Jason Scott Lee]) and Canada (Guan Yongyang 关永扬 [Darryl Quon]) to Australia (half-Italian Liu Chengyu 刘承羽 [Natasha Liu Bordizzo], Wu Yugang 吴育刚 [Chris Pang]) and New Zealand (Gary Young). All are OK but essentially passing decoration; Li, now a ripe old 49, has the biggest fun, going way over the top as the beefy chief villain, while Vietnamese singer/actress Ngô Thanh Vân [Veronica Ngo], 37, of Clash (Bẫy rồng, 2009) fame, is suitably lithe/sexy as his female sidekick, outclassing in just a few scenes the rather dull Liu, 21, in her first film role.
With Yang limited to just a few graceful moves this time round, it’s mostly left to Zhen and the supports to keep the action going. But like most of Yuan’s recent choreography, it’s tired and very retro-looking (not in a good way), with especially corny wire-fu. Only a three-way fight on a slippery, frozen lake has any kind of atmosphere, but is over too soon. The real finale, set around a multi-level pagoda, is clumsily cut and staged, with no sense of climax. Throughout, the feeble, disconnected score by Japan’s Umebayashi Shigeru 梅林茂 is no help, often working against the film, and the editing by Jeff Betancourt is more western than eastern in its slow tempo. Not surprisingly, given its creative team, Sword of Destiny hardly feels like a Chinese film: the rhythms are all wrong, the fights lack punch, and the performances seem just slightly off.
Reportedly, The Weinstein Company owns the rights to the whole pentalogy, so future Asia-puddings of this kind are still on the cards.
Presented by China Film Group (CN), Netflix (US), The Weinstein Company (US), Pegasus Ubiquitous Culture Media (CN). Produced by China Film (CN), Pegasus Ubiquitous Culture Media (CN), Film 44 (US).
Script: John Fusco. Novel: Wang Dulu. Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel. Editing: Jeff Betancourt. Music: Umebayashi Shigeru. Production design: Grant Major. Art direction: Nick Bassett. Costume designer: Ngila Dickson. Sound: Tony Johnson. Action: Augie Davis, Yuan Shunyi, Ling Zhihua. Visual effects: Mark Stetson (Pixomondo, Zoic Studios, Lola VFX).
Cast: Zhen Zidan [Donnie Yen] (Meng Sizhao/Gu Lang/Silent Wolf), Yang Ziqiong [Michelle Yeoh] (Yu Xiulian), Cen Yongkang [Harry Shum Jr.] (Wei Fang), Liu Chengyu [Natasha Liu Bordizzo] (Xueping/Snow Vase), Li Jie [Jason Scott Lee] (Daiyan Wang/Hades Dai), Yuan Liqi [Eugenia Yuan] (Jiuyou Nv/Blind Enchantress), Ngô Thanh Vân [Veronica Ngo] (Duanhun Ying/Mantis), Yuan Zhizheng [Roger Yuan] (Tie Wuya/Iron Crow), Chen Yuyun (Wuying Biao/Silver Dart Shi), Wu Yugang [Chris Pang] (Feidao Li/Flying Blade), Park Weon-yong (Tiebi Lu/Thunder Fist Chan), Guan Yongyang [Darryl Quon] (Jiu Dian/Turtle Ma), An Youxin [Yoson An] (boxer), Gary Young (Tie’s son), Zhang Shuya (Han Mei, legendary swordswoman), Andrew B. Stehlin (Black Tiger), Zhou Xiaofei (Zhao Fei), Angela Chan (young Snow Vase), Jermaine Yee (young Wei Fang).
Release: China, 19 Feb 2016; US, 26 Feb 2016.